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Archive for September, 2010

Bar Salumi

29 Sep

Bar Salumi and the famous Volano meat slicer

Last night we ate the menu at Bar Salumi, the new Parkdale watering hole created by the team from Local Kitchen and Winebar – chef Fabio Bondi and front-of-house star Michael Sangregorio. It’s only four doors away from Local, and Sangregorio has been wearing out his shoes dashing from one to the other (another good argument for having an identical twin). Bar Salumi has edible décor – innumerable jars of house-made tomato sauce on wine-box shelves, prosciutti hanging from the ceiling (Berkshire hams ageing nicely beneath Bondi’s lard-and-vinegar cure), strings of hot peppers behind the bar, a wild boar’s head stuffed and mounted on the wall. The lighting is as fashionably mellow as the music and the high-top tables and bar stools are a fine place to sit for an hour or two over one of the different Negroni variations on offer. I’m not sure nine wines is an adequate selection for a place that sets out to be a bar but they’re decent wines and reasonably priced.

The menu is equally piccolo – just eight items, all small and relatively unadorned. You can’t call them tapas because they generally avoid saltiness and intensity of flavour but they are carefully made and show the same delicious simplicity Bondi brings to the slightly larger card at Local. The selection of house-made salumi is the obvious place to begin. I had expected cook Eli Greenberg, alone behind the food bar, to use the gorgeous red Volano meat slicer (“the Ferrari of meat slicers,” says Sangregorio) but that, it seems, is reserved for the prosciutto (they are using an excellent, sweet, subtle product from Parma until the house hams are ready). He used a smaller, less complicated machine for the other meats, loading a wooden platter with tissue-thin slices of lean culatello with the texture of a silk handkerchief; soft, fatty wild boar salami; a coarse-grained Tuscan-style sausage flavoured with oregano; and a very good bresaola that was poised at the crucial textural point between necessary dryness and a lingering suggestion of moist tenderness. I would have liked some pickles or mustards or breads with the selection but that isn’t the route Bar Salumi is taking. Perhaps they don’t want to cannibalize their own business from Local.

A couple of crostini were the stars of the evening. One comes topped with thinly sliced boiled potato and juicy slices of octopus braised in white wine and bay with a couple of wine corks added to help tenderize the beast. I had never heard of doing this and can’t really figure out any plausible science behind the practice but the octopus was certainly tender. A sprinkle of orange zest perks up the timid flavour.

Orange zest also forms part of the marinade for a divine sardine fillet that lies across another crunchy crostini. Cured for two hours with salt, capers, lemoncello, orange juice, vinegar and olive oil, the fish has a sleek, smooth texture and a surprisingly subtle taste that sneaks up slowly on the palate.

The rest of the menu brings three kinds of olives with crunchy nudini knots and a morsel of ricotta salata. Or one can munch on sliced roma tomato and a soft pillow of burrata stuffed with ricotta and cream. Or play hunt the bocconcino that hides inside a juicy pickled red cherry pepper which has masses of flavour and a good prickly capsicum heat.

We ate everything and were still hungry so we walked up the street, sat down at the bar at Local Kitchen and shared a dish of pasta made with the simple, perfect, basil-scented tomato sauce that adorns Bar Salumi. Susur Lee happened to be there, having dinner with friends, and he shared some news about Lee Lounge, the imminent next incarnation of Susur/Madeline’s. He has opened up the wall between that space and Lee next door, which will expand the ever-popular Lee’s capacity but still allow room for a lounge and bar with its own intriguing menu. I can’t wait to see it.

 Bar Salumi. 1704 Queen Street West (just east of Roncesvalles). 416 588-0100.

 

Alinea – Chicago

27 Sep

No flashes permitted at Alinea - hence the dull yellow hue to this picture.

There are surprisingly few restaurants open for dinner on Sunday in Chicago but luckily Alinea is one of them. “Why go there,” asked friends in Toronto. “Okay, it’s number seven in the world according to the San Pellegrino charts, but everything has already been written about the place.” And about Grant Achatz, its chef and co-owner, a man still in his mid-30s whose artistic energies were honed at Charlie Trotter’s and the French Laundry and then molecularly realigned (so the story goes) by a trip to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Catalonia. He created Alinea five years ago and has not yet opened his next Chicago venture or ventures – The Aviary and/or Next Restaurant – which may or may not be the same place – despite a staggering amount of prescient press pressure that has been going on for months… Such are the games this chef plays with the world.

The Sunday in question was spent walking round Oak Park’s leafy avenues admiring Frank Lloyd Wrighteous architecture, humming Paul Simon’s beautiful song and agreeing that FLW was indeed a precociously modern genius of both arts and crafts (like Chef Achatz) and a man dictatorially determined that his vision and his taste should completely surround and envelop his customers (like Chef Achatz).

Our heads were full of Wright’s visual rhythms and melodic lines as we dressed for dinner in the hotel. Then – suddenly – sapristi! Where the devil were my cufflinks? Egad… Still in a box in Toronto. A potential disaster was only averted by some swift MacGyvering, twisting four bobby pins into makeshift links like anorexic spiders to grip the snowy cuffs. Robert Tateossian’s preeminence was in no danger but I was rather proud of myself for taking something commonplace and turning it into something strange and unlikely but satisfying and successful (again, just like Chef Achatz).

Alinea looks like a regular house from the outside – a black façade with modest signage. Open the door and you are faced with an introductory moment of theatre, a black corridor lit by concealed pink lights that narrows dramatically so that for a fraction of a second it seems very long, until your eyes correct the mistake. Some might call it a cheap trick, a moment borrowed from a carnival haunted house, but it made me smile.

Take a left turn and now you are in the building proper. A glimpse of the kitchen to the right – dozens of cooks bent in concentration over their work stations – a lounge to the left, another salon perhaps – but our table is up the glass-hedged stairs in one of three or four small rooms. This way. The staff here are dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna – bussers and waiters in the sporty Z-Zegna line, sommeliers and maitre d’ in the more formal Sartorial suits and ties. They are polite but firm and they will be with us all evening, explaining, instructing, hovering, listening (once commenting on something my wife had just said to me – which was a step too far). For the first 15 minutes, we find ourselves bridling at such a bossy tone and longing for a moment of privacy, but gradually we are won over, coaxed and seduced into the Alinea experience. It isn’t the house that is responsible – the décor looks lovely on the web site but is banal in reality with dull paintings on the wall – it’s the food and the clever wine choices and the quirky eccentricity of the servers (our wine waiter has hair like Edward Scissorhands and the mannerisms of David Tennant’s Doctor Who)… But mostly it’s the food.

Our research had implied there are two menus at Alinea, one longer and even more expensive than the shorter version. On our visit there was only one. It consisted of 21 courses, some very small, others not, all of them fascinating – and it cost the earth. From the outset, there is a palpable insistence that the customer should give up all sense of independence and go with the program. We were offered our choice of waters but it was the last moment of freedom. Before I could form a request for a cocktail, one was set in front of me – a frozen, chewy Pisco Sour, like a mixture between nougat and ice cream in terms of texture but tasting intensely of a real-life Pisco Sour.

Course two was another cocktail, called a Juliet and Romeo, or so we were instructed. Its texture was similar to compressed watermelon or even the crunchy jelly of sea cucumber – it was a green gelatinous cube and it tasted, miraculously, of Plymouth gin, cucumber, rosewater and mint. I felt a little like an adult confronted by an accomplished conjuror. I could figure out how he did it but that didn’t detract from my admiration at how skillfully he pulled off the trick.

The third cocktail was a play on a Manhattan – half a macerated cherry topped by a foam – tasting just like a Manhattan. Achatz has been to Barchef on Queen Street in Toronto and tasted some of Frankie Solarik’s work. We’re talking kindred spirits.

Course four is the one that blew the last vestige of doubt and cynicism from Wendy’s mind. Picture a chilled pea soup garnished with drops of olive oil, a little Iberico ham, some honeydew melon, fresh basil and a trace of sherry. Got that? But here it came in a tumbler and the soup was a very cold powder, soft as talc, and packed like yesterday’s snow, with some crunchy round green moments, some salty, hammy flashes, some sudden jellies, etcetera… But tasting like the real thing as the textures melted and adjusted on the tongue. Was it better or more satisfying than an actual bowl of soup would have been? Nope. But it was no worse. Just different and clever. And it was unlike our experience at L20 the night before because the tricks were working. The wow factor was there – five out of five – because there really was an awesome flavour of pea and ham and all the other elements in that glass of powder.

Next came a very crispy wand like a tiny caduceus with serpents of raw white shrimp twsited around it. It was made of dehydrated soy milk skin but it tasted like a cross between very fine pastry and ethereal pork crackling. The shrimp flesh was real, sprinkled with black and white sesame and the whole thing was stuck into a tiny inkwell filled with a rich miso dipping sauce. Part of the same presentation was a fibrous morsel of sugar cane that had been infused under pressure with shrimp stock. “Chew it then spit it out like gum into the paper provided,” were the orders.

Now came the dish that won my curmudgeonly heart. It was almost the first thing we had eaten in Chicago that had some local provenance, some geographical relevance – a presentation of heirloom tomatoes from Michigan (almost as good as their Niagara kin) some very thinly sliced, some tiny and blanched and peeled, surrounded by eight mounds of different powdered condiments, some chilled, some crunchy – things like pine nut or fennel or basil or balsamic. Great ideas. And the whole plate was set down gently on an inflated pillow filled with air that had been carefully scented with the smell of freshly cut grass. The weight of the plate gradually pressed the air out of the pores of the pillowcase, adding a new aromatic dimension to the dish. I loved the idea.

And so on – and on… Here a roto evaporator had been used to create a low-temperature “distillation” of Thai flavours. There we were invited to build a structure of metal legs that could support a tiny flag, glossy as latex, emblazoned with flower petals that were once things like mustard and mango, and to load it up with dried garlic chips, a kind of belly pork rillettes, cucumber spheres, lime zest jelly, red bell pepper coulis, young coconut ribbon, etcetera etcetera. Such a lot of work for one slightly sticky bite in which all the flavours and textures combined into a single mouthful.

Then there were games with crabmeat and plum or with a piece of pheasant fried like tempura with walnut, green grape and sage to be eaten in one bite while oak leaves smolder and smoke.

Another dish showed off the flavour of a local lamb with such props as the fat from the saddle fried in panko crumbs (the size of a bean), fried green scallions, a maple bourbon gastrique…

A hot confit of potato with a slice of truffle was poised like a brooch on a pin over a spoonful of chilled truffle and potato soup. “See how we contrast hot and cold textures!!” the dish declared. (Yes dear, very clever.)

There was a main course. It was a cylinder of Australian wagyu tenderloin beef cooked according to a classic recipe from Escoffier, circa 1902, surrounded by morsels of fried banana, grilled green chilies stuffed with foie-gras-enhanced rice, peeled tomtaoes and a little classic Chateaubriand sauce. It was intended as a moment of respect and antique purity (and a reminder of the labour-intensive techniques of the past) and we were given antique cutlery to eat it with and an antique wine glass to accommodate the supersmooth wine – an Anima Negra An 2005 from Mallorca. Then a black truffle explosion (“put it all in your mouth and close your lips when you bite”). Then a scrap of bacon wrapped in apple and hung out to dry on a wire frame (“pull off the bacon and eat it in one go”). Then it was into the five dessert courses, one of which necessitated the spreading of a pale green silicone cloth over the bare wooden table so we could dispense with plates and mess up chocolate mousse frozen to crumbly honeycomb in liquid nitrogen and dressed with all sorts of candy sauces and menthol whipped cream and crispy herbs and micro-anise-hyssop. But let us draw a modest veil over all of them (it’s late, they were great).

Indeed, the whole experience has a greatness to it. It is very carefully choreographed and constructed – so precisely that there is no room for any improvisation from the customer (if I had embarked on a five-minute chat with the wine waiter about the relative merits of blaufrankisch or pinot noir in an Austrian bubbly the whole kitchen might have imploded). It is theatre. It is Cirque du Soleil and the fact that the miracles will be repeated later in the evening for each and every customer – and again tomorrow and again, hundreds of times, in the months to come – does spoil the show a little. If you like jazz – in other words, if you like improvisation and risk-taking in real time – you will hate Alinea. If you like avant-garde architecture – blending art and science and engineering to create an art form that is repeatable and spectacular (the first time you see it), this is the restaurant for you. Do expect to be amazed by the technical excellence of the dozens of cooks in the kitchen and by Chef Achatz’s vision – and by the quality of the cooking and ingredients and wine matching. Real gastronomy is happening here, not just smoke and mirrors. Do not hope for even a single minute when you can actually talk to your wife before the next course comes.

 Alinea (rhymes with Lavinia) Dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday. 1723 North Halsted, Chicago. 312 867-0110. www.alinea-restaurant.com.

 

L20 Chicago

23 Sep

The Chicago riviera

There are so many choices for dinner in Chicago on Saturday night, but I was eager to visit L20 and taste Laurent Gras’s cooking again. I first came across him in New York, a decade ago, when he was executive chef of Peacock Alley in the Waldorf-Astoria, his first kitchen after 13 years as Alain Ducasse’s right-hand man, gathering three Michelin stars in Monte Carlo and Paris. His food then was extraordinary, ethereal, meticulous, deconstructed to such a degree that elements of the same dish were brought separately to the table. A shellfish composition, for example, featured a juicy, stir-fried lobster tail on an emulsion made from its coral, alongside tiny, soft, flavourful quenelles of crab mousseline. Sweet crab crisps, fragile as tissue, had their own napkin-wrapped vessel while a third bowl held samphire and slivers of geoduck in a clear, golden lime-and-clam consommé. It sounds precious, but the flavours were vivid and true, their relationships irrefutably valid.

The next time I tasted Gras’s food was here in Toronto in 2004 when he was a guest chef at Susur, swapping courses with Susur Lee and generally astonishing the room. By then, he was based in San Francisco, wowing the critics at Fifth Floor. He started building L20 in 2007 as a collaboration with restaurateur Richard Melman – and now here we are, three years later, opening the heavy dark-wood door in the lobby of the Belden Stratford hotel in posh Lincoln Park, eager to be amazed.

We are on time but the restaurant is not ready for us so we are guided into the bar. The décor is all very chic in its carefully shadow-barred glow – a forest of ebony columns and white leather chairs, high-tension steel wire and pale natural wood, frosted glass panels and caramel-coloured sofas – timeless, elegant and as instantly forgettable as the murmuring non-music that teases our ears. I order a glass of bone-dry, ascetically mineral Assyrtiko from Santorini as a telling comment on the chilly welcome but the gesture goes unnoticed.

To table – and our first glimpse of the menu. Chef Gras has become bewitched by Japan, it seems. L20 is a restaurant with a decidedly Japanese sensibility and an infatuation with the sea, a thousand miles from Chicago. A folded card lists the day’s fresh fish – even American flounder and Australian Yellowtail are translated into Japanese – though the menu names only the ingredients in each dish, not how they are prepared or any hint of their relationship. There is a 12-course seasonal tasting menu and a 10-course “luxury ingredient” menu featuring Italian ossetra caviar, wild hamo, Rangers Valley wagyu beef, etcetera… The waiter tells us that Chef “allows” two people to have different tasting menus if they wish – that “allows” immediately raises our hackles. But I remember Gras advising me to order à la carte all those years ago in New York, so that’s how we go…

Eighteen Flavours of Summer

I’m so tempted to cut to the chase. Instead, let me describe some of what we ate, choosing the dishes because they exemplify what was best and what was bizarre about our meal. As you can see from the picture, the appetizer entitled “eighteen flavours of summer” is a technically dazzling tour de force of tiny, overwrought vegetable jewels. Some items are brilliant – tempura avocado, for instance, or a super-intense apple-jalapeño sorbet; others are merely finicky or over too quickly to leave much impression. Do I sound like a bumpkin if I suggest that five or six flavours of summer might have been more impressive?

Pan-seared foie gras is another disappointment. The waiter sets down the dish then goes into realtor mode, spending so long describing its salient features that the liver is cold by the time we broach its perfect but now-congealed surface. And its delicately lipoidal flavour is lost beneath the flamboyant courtiers that crowd around it – steamed scallions, balsamic dots, fresh raspberries with tatsoi greens, guanaca chocolate goo, cylinders of caramelized phyllo, a raspberry foam turned to semifreddo by long tableside whisking in a tumbler of liquid nitrogen. The waiter seems slightly disappointed that we have seen the trick before.

Lamb tartare layered with raw shrimp is salted to the point of bitterness, its purslane garland decorated with edible gold leaf like some Bollywood dessert. By the time our main courses come we are wishing we had gone to Schwa instead.

I admit it – I chose my main course because it had an actual verb in the verbiage – “Tai snapper – green curry deconstructed.” It reminded me of Peacock Alley. The snapper itself was magnificent – a perfect, plump, heavy, moist, juicy fillet of flaky white fish with more flavour than one usually finds in members of the snapper clan. Around it were brussels sprout leaves, coconut turned to silken powder and rice turned to foam, a very sweet coriander tuile with a crudely chewy texture, green dots of chili, brown dots of ginger, another bit of fun with liquid nitrogen, this time turning cilantro foam into a sort of petrified effervescent macaroon… So many magical silver bells and gilded whistles – but it was the fish that proved the highlight of the evening.

Snapper, green curry deconstructed and overexposed

After that came the pre-desserts and the desserts, the molecular tricks suddenly seeming far more acceptable and normal. After all, we have been used to such games from confectioners since Escoffier was a lad. Best of the lot was a pre-dessert of frozen meyer lemon and ginger marshmallow in an egg cup. I could have eaten a tub of it.

Zooming back to the Drake hotel in a cab, we dissected the evening. L20 is three years old but it seems much older. This sort of cooking is very dated now – as is the style of service, so tight-lipped, precious and admonitory. The descriptions of the dishes had been learned by rote (the waiter knew the foam was cilantro, but not that cilantro and coriander are one and the same) and there was a sense they had also been cooked by rote, with extraordinary discipline and precision but very little joy. Laurent Gras seems to be urging his customers towards some kind of classic kaiseki experience, but it isn’t working. Japanese cooking constantly seeks to reveal the essence (actual, sensual, metaphorical and spiritual) of a particular ingredient. Everything the chef does is dedicated to that end. Tonight seemed much more about the worship of technique – even to the point of camouflage. It reminded me of a performance of a Shakespeare play where the actors become so involved in perfectly delivering the verse that they forget about the plot altogether.

Next up, Alinea – another temple of technique.

L2O is located at 2300 Lincoln Park West (at Belden Avenue) in the Belden Stratford and serves dinner six nights a week: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6:00PM-10:00PM, Friday 6:00PM-11:00PM, Saturday from 5:00PM-11:00PM and Sunday from 6:00PM-9:00PM. Heaven help you if you’re hungry at 9:05PM on the Sabbath. For reservations call 773-868-0002.

 

A weekend in Chicago

21 Sep

A view from the lake

To Chicago for the weekend, Wendy and I celebrating our wedding anniversary with much architecture and adventure, and plenty of interesting eating. Alinea was a bright highlight, L20 more of a flickering glow (more of them both later) but the first thing we tasted in that famously toddlin’ town was a fine presentation of U.S. oysters at the venerable Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard, 312-527-2722). No doubt it helped that we were both starving, having left our bags at The Drake hotel and then walked down Michigan in the teeming rain, ducking out from under our umbrellas to look up in admiration at the skyscrapers.

The posh side of Shaw’s (1940s-style, all polished wood, brass and white linen, the sort of place where you might see the police chief dining) is closed at lunchtime so we sat on swivelly stools at one of the comfortable wooden hightops in the much more casual oyster bar, chatting with the friendly waiter about the merits of the various Massachusetts oysters on the day’s board. In the end he bought us a selection, plus a couple of ringers from Rhode Island, helpfully writing each oyster’s identity on a paper napkin tucked under the shells. There was such variety! Thatch Island from Barnstaple Harbour, MA, was delectably sweet and creamily textured while Wianno from Cape Cod Bay seemed much saltier with an interesting bitter note; the renowned Cotuit from Cotuit Bay, MA, lay half way between the two in terms of texture and flavour. Rome Point from Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, proved to be a great big meaty mouthful, not too salty but requiring chewing. Moonstone from Point Judith Pond, RI, was another sweet oyster – almost too sweet – almost bland, indeed, and benfitted from a dot of the incredibly tart frozen mignonette (like vinegar granita) that Shaw’s sets out on the ice tray. Our favourite oyster was the creamy Island Creek from Duxbury Harbour, MA, which stood out from its cousins with a delicious pepperiness and a hint of melon.

Patrick MacMurray of Starfish in Toronto had recommended Shaw’s for the oyster presentation, and we raised our glasses to him in thanks. And now that we had rubbed the sharp edge off our hunger we were able to look around a little more, watching the bar fill up with a healthy mix of tourists and locals. There were oysterly quotations on the walls and a framed photograph of M.F.K. Fisher, whose book Consider the Oyster remains a classic document. If we had wished to sustain the heavenly moment we should have stuck to oysters, comparing the other US varieties with the Canadian ones offered (a couple from BC, only Coupe des Anges from Prince Edward Island) but the menu at Shaw’s is long and tempting. Wendy ordered the lobster bisque which was thick and tasted of sweet cream and tomato with a hint of liquor and spice and enough of the flavour of benthic crustacea to satisfy. I ordered “blue crab fingers” which were the steamed, chilled, partially shelled claws of blue crabs and tasted of nothing at all.

Shaw's Crab House

We watched huge platters of fried fish and shrimp passing by, as well as battered halibut tacos and blackened swordfish with mashed potatoes. In the end, we asked for crab cakes which came lightly breaded and generously packed with juicy chunks of insipid crab. The presentation was almost aggressively artless, the plate crowded with a ramekin of industrial coleslaw, some garlic-laden creamed spinach and a pot of mayonnaise. In an effort to eat something local in the middle of the continent, we ordered oven-roasted Lake Superior whitefish. It was moist and rich, a lovely fillet crusted with horseradish-flavoured breadcrumbs and set over squeaky green beans and a timid caper beurre blanc. Decent food, but I couldn’t help glancing back to an hour before… There lay those oysters, just a memory now but still shining in a golden light.

Unfolding the map of the weekend we saw that L20 (pronounced ell-two-oh) awaited us – another restaurant specializing in seafood – I’ll get on to that soon.

 

White Owl Whisky

16 Sep

White Owl - some say it's a whisper in the darkness; others find it a hoot

Everyone loves anomalous spirits – by which I mean, of course, that I do. In a couple of weeks a new Canadian whisky is being released in Ontario unlike any Canadian whisky hitherto seen. It’s a blended 10-year-old based on a wheat-and-rye distillation mash and it is as clear and colourless as vodka. According to the press releases from Highwood Distillers, the privately owned distillery in Calgary, the finished, blended whisky is run through a micro-carbon filtration five times to strip out the colour as well as congeners and “impurities.”

What they don’t say is what kind of colour was there to begin with. There is precious little oakiness in the nose of this intriguing drink, which leads me to think its ten years of ageing may have been in something other than a traditional cask. Unless those aromas have also been stripped out of the spirit. What it does smell like is vodka – but a northern European vodka with plenty of clean grainy character and an added touch of anise, a trace of vanilla, a hint of the sort of stemmy perfume you get from a bunch of odourless white flowers early in the year. On the palate, it’s smooth and quite rich. In the initial seconds en bouche I find myself waiting for the sweet grainy flavour of genever gin to kick in – or even the oily, sweaty hit of a decent poteen – but there’s nothing there. And that is just what the vodka drinkers – the acknowledged target audience for this whisky – will appreciate most.

The product is called White Owl whisky – WOW for short, inevitably – and it’s going to be hitting the market as a Canadian whisky alternative to deluxe vodkas like Grey Goose (I’m sure any similarity in the name is a complete coincidence), coming in at around $40, or so I am told.

Whisky lovers will find it puzzling – it’s so completely un-whisky-like – but its purpose is to muscle into the cocktail scene, a rye disguised as a white spirit. Hell why not, say I.

And just to show what they are capable of in a more orthodox format, Highwood Distillers have also released a deliciously sharp, smooth rye whisky called Century reserve 21-year-old Rye Whisky through Vintages. I don’t have to tell you that most Canadian “rye” isn’t rye whisky at all but a blend of many grains. This one is something to savour or, if you’re feeling really flush or else completely at the end of your rope, to use in a Manhattan. Either way, yummy.

 

Böhmer

14 Sep

Boehmer's Bike - ambient decibels causing camera shake!

History might have been different if Michael Stadtländer had had his way back in 1990 and had been able to hand over his brilliant, avant-garde, empty restaurant, Nekah, to his 26-year-old sous chef, Paul Boehmer. That was the plan. But Stadtländer’s partner, Tom Kristenbrun, was tired of losing money on the two-year-old project and ended up closing the place down. Twenty years would pass before Boehmer finally got a place of his own – Böhmer.

I’ve been catching up on new restaurants in recent weeks and though Böhmer has been open a while, I hadn’t eaten there. Having dropped by in January to see the final stages of construction and hear the eager plans and hopes, I wanted to see how reality compared with those earlier intentions. I was also keen to taste Boehmer’s food again, having missed his work at Rosewater Supper club, Six Steps and The Spoke. More often than not, over the years, he has delighted me. I remember a very fine sorrel vichyssoise and fabulous lamb rack during his long stint at Opus in the ’90s; a stunning quail stuffed with vodka-marinated foie gras in the unlikely clubland environs of Atlas, in 1995; many moments up at Eigensinn Farm when he volunteered his services for a fundraiser, all six-foot-seven-inches of him lurking in the forest like a white-clad Little John, braising rabbit or searing his trademark foie gras with blackcurrant purée over a log fire.

Before Böhmer opened, the chef told me he intended to go back to his Stadtländeresque roots with his new restaurant, thinking about Canadiana, local ingredients, wild elements… In the year he spent converting the 5000-square-feet auto-engine rebuilding garage into Ossington’s most glamorous space, he did not change his mind. The décor takes rural Ontario as a theme with washrooms finished in reclaimed wood and brown Georgian Bay limestone, a gorgeous elm-wood bar and a communal table set beneath an extraordinary chandelier that looks like the naked roots of a tree dripping with Swarovski crystals. There’s a private dining room that seats 18 and another nook with leather banquettes and three tables made from tree trunks, the walls hung with paintings by Paul’s late father. If it all sounds a bit folksy then I have misled you. It’s very cool and on an outsized scale. Back in January, they drove an Audi R8V10 into the restaurant for the Design Show closing party. Right now there’s a most intriguing and unlikely motorcycle parked close to the kitchen. You might notice that my image of it is slightly out of focus… That’s because the joint was jumping on the night we were there, packed to the rafters with at least two sizeable private parties and much, much too loud. We couldn’t hear each other speak, couldn’t hear the waitress. I’m not sure there’s a solution unless they change the décor to tapestries and baffles – it’s a question of too many people having too good a time.

The food impressed me. Portions were large but that’s why we have doggy bags, isn’t it? Croquettes of finely ground, robustly seasoned lamb were double-rolled in crunchy panko crumbs and served over a homey bed of soft-cooked cabbage with bacon. The sweet meaty flavour of hand-cut, tender, very lean venison tartare was boosted with the usual capery, oniony additions, arriving with a raw quail egg yolk quivering on top to be mashed into the mix. A side salad of thinly sliced Granny Smith apple and baby spinach in a lemon walnut dressing was an ideal refreshment to the richness of the tartare.

Boehmer has always cooked rabbit well. His current version is an admirably moist saddle rolled up in bacon with soft, rich blood pudding then sliced into inch-high drums. Farmed local rabbit has very little flavour, alas, but the blood pudding and bacon come to its rescue and I loved the quartered brussels sprouts on the plate, tossed with crumbled hazelnuts and a smooth, tan-coloured jus.

A big slab of halibut was the evening’s star – as good a piece of halibut as I’ve had on either coast, firm and fleshy, juicy but not watery, crusted with hemp seed. Dark leafy greens added a pleasing bitterness while slippery little mushrooms and a mushroom jus provided an earthy sweetness. A mound of citric tomato concassé positioned well away from the fish worked well as a tangy condiment.

Cheese Boutique provides the cheeses here and Afrim Pristine has found some real treats for the list including a sensational hand-made Spanish goat cheese called Monte Enebro, its ashy rind created by the same mould that turns Roquefort blue. One could linger over them but it would be terribly wrong to ignore the desserts, particularly a huge apricot tart made of soft, beautifully cooked almond shortcrust pastry topped with masses of vanilla pastry cream and gorgeous little Ontario apricots poached until they are on the very brink of dissolution. It’s a seasonal treat – and apricots have all too short a lease – but the message is unchangeable: leave room, somehow, for dessert.

Jamie Drummond has put together the wine list which integrates some of Canada’s finest with the sort of global treats that make connoisseurs nod and smile. The Ontario bottlings do not look out of place. About 30 wines are available by the glass. The cocktail list is a retro gem and includes a number of forgotten classics.

Closed Sunday. Monday to Wednesday: Kitchen 5pm-11pm, Bar 5pm – 1am. Thursday to Saturday: Kitchen 5pm-midnight, Bar 5pm-2am

 93 Ossington Ave (at Queen St W.), 416 531-3800.

 

Brockton General

11 Sep

Brie Read and Pam Thomson, the friendly owners of Brockton General

Where do Portuguese soccer fans go to drink these days? So many of their old haunts are being turned into restaurants. Brockton General is the latest transformation, from a grungy Benfica clubhouse to a demure little bar and restaurant with charmingly enthusiastic service and seriously impressive food. First-time restaurateurs Brie Read and Pam Thomson found the property on Craig’s List, painted over the black and crimson walls with pale blue and white, fixed antique boxes behind the bar to serve as shelves, gathered enough tables and chairs to seat 30 and opened for business a month ago. “The name comes from the fact that we’re on the edge of the old Brockton village,” explains Read, “and both of us have always liked the idea of general stores. In fact we’d like to sell things from the kitchen here some day.”

That kitchen is currently the solo domain of Guy Rawlings, formerly chef de cuisine of Cowbell. He has an interesting cv that includes two years as sous chef at Il Mulino (which explains the high quality of his pasta dishes) and a stint as pastry chef at Célestin. Offering dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, he writes his small menu on a roll of butcher’s paper that hangs on the wall, changing many of the dishes nightly. We found that four people could order and share the entire thing and still have room to work through the bar menu that is available every evening. Lots of simple treats can be found there. Toasted St. John’s bread is great with a nicely balanced, surprisingly subtle mash of white bean, anchovy and garlic and with a little jar of potted duck – like moist, rather salty and generously flavourful rillettes. Rawlings is a whizz at pickling, using preserved items to add an extra dimension to several dishes. Pickled green beans and cucumbers are properly crunchy; firm butter beans dressed with smoked paprika and peanut oil are equally irresistible.

As one would expect from a Cowbell alumnus, Rawlings butchers his own meat, buying a whole lamb from Dingo Farms in Bradford, for example, and wasting nothing. He served the shoulder on the night we visited, the tender meat confited in spiced oil, pulled and heaped onto a slab of grilled eggplant that had been brushed with Greek olive oil, mint and dill. Slices of crunchy pickled cucumber added tang and texture while small mounds of strained goat’s milk yoghurt were almost as thick and rich as bocconcini.

Maltagliati pasta, soft as snippets of silk ribbon, came tossed with braised escarole and braised celery tops – forthright, pleasingly bitter greens that made the nubbins of meat from a boar’s head seem all the sweeter. Deep-fried gnocchi made with Monforte ricotta were admirably lightweight, their creaminess offset by quartered pickled radishes (very tart and crunchy), parsley leaves, flower petals for edible decoration and some tiny slices of fiery red chili that brought the whole dish to life.

The one disappointment was an appetizer of  two little artichokes with a yummy verjus butter sitting in for a hollandaise. The artichokes were too small to have any flesh on their leaves and needed longer cooking to sweeten the chlorophyllous flavour of their hard little hearts. Much more enticing was the daily crostino, a thick slice of grilled bread spread with a smoked walnut-anchovy paste and topped with a broken poached egg, raisins that had been swollen in white wine and some wild spinach from the chef’s backyard.

The one dessert offered proved to be an interesting little assembly. Rawlings had fried pieces of brioche and tossed them in sugar to create a sort of beignet then smothered them in fresh groundcherries, tiny heart-shaped wood sorrel leaves and a sour purée of shiro plums picked on his girlfriend’s grandparents’ farm – a lively combination of tart fruit flavours.

Four of the eight wines on the current list are Canadian (all of them available by the glass) but Read and Thomson have had a surprise hit with their bourbonade, a lovely summer cocktail of bourbon, thyme-flavoured simple syrup, fresh lemonade and soda. They are thinking of taking it off the menu now the season is changing but its many fans will surely protest. Beer remains the preferred solace of those old Benfica fans, some of whom still drop by from time to time, taking an avuncular interest in Brockton General’s progress.

Closed Tuesday. Dinner menu offered Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

1321 Dundas St. W. (at Lisgar St.), 647 342-6104.

 

The Niagara Tour day three

08 Sep

Farmer Vivek Rajakumar, proprietor of Victory Organic Greens

And then quite suddenly (but not entirely unexpectedly) it was Sunday and we were all standing outside the hotel in the cool and breezy sunshine at nine o’clock in the morning, appetites primed by a lavish cooked breakfast and ready for new adventures.

The day began with a visit to Victory Organic Greens, a small farm on the flatlands southwest of St. Catharines. We were greeted by the owner-operator, a young man of 24 called Vivek Rajakumar, his wife, Alexandra Hlinyanszky (who is the gifted chef at the health-conscious Pan Café in downtown St. Catharines), and their very small, very well-behaved, strawberry-eating daughter, Isabella – not to mention an adorable little dog called Bobo who looks something like a dachshund and a bit like a terrier and, like Isabella, accepts whole strawberries when they are offered. There are lots of strawberries on the farm because when Vivek abandoned a degree in finance and began his farming life a few years ago, it was with the ambitious idea of growing strawberries hydroponically, year-round, in a greenhouse. He has since switched to organic salad greens grown indoors and outdoors according to the weather, each little plant nurtured with herbal teas and molasses, its perfect leaves individually snipped off with scissors and bagged for sale to nearby restaurants or farther afield in Toronto, at the Big Carrot and Pusateri’s. But there is still a bumper crop of shiny, scarlet, juice-swollen ever-bearing strawberries to be found on the bushes and swiftly eaten while Vivek is in the greenhouse explaining his methods to the more serious element in our party. We greedies were startled by cannon fire as we stole the fruit but it was only the bird-scaring devices in neighbouring vineyards. Like the sky-darkening flocks of local starlings, we soon learned to ignore them and stripped the bushes bare. Strawbugs aside, we were all touched by this self-taught young man’s sincerity and commitment and by the way his wife spoke of him when he was out of earshot – shy stories glowing with love and admiration for her husband. I will certainly buy his deliciously righteous greens whenever I see them.

On to Stratus winery for a most informative tour of that unique and ergonomically elegant facility and a tasting of four of their gems. As usual, the Stratus White (this time it was the 2006) simply blew me away, a gorgeous, layered blend of six varieties that impressed people in many different ways. “Pineapple quince,” said one perspicacious member of the group; “honey,” said another. I couldn’t help thinking of yesterday’s buttered and roasted peach but the tight braid of aromas and flavours are not to be pinned down so easily.

Lunch was at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery. I have visited a few times this year, bringing friends from England there, as the property is resplendent with anecdotes. We talked about its narrow escape from development into row housing, the rescue by the Harber family who have been connected by marriage with this piece of land for five generations, the land itself which is the actual ancient riverbed of the Niagara river and offers completely different soil from neighbouring properties. Vines planted here grow to maturity much faster than they do anywhere else.

We began with a splendid spread of charcuterie, cheeses, pickles and breads in the main parlour of the restored 1804 house that stands at the heart of Ravine. It was known as the House of Nations in the early 19th century because new immigrant families rented its many rooms (one family per room) before they began to make their way in the community. And William Lyon Mackenzie once jumped from an upstairs window into a convenient tree to escape his pursuers. I had warned our company that there were at least three more courses to come but the terrines and prosciutto were awfully hard to ignore. Blame the very strong young culinary team at Ravine led by Stadtländer protégé Paul Harber and another chef, Collin Goodine. Amy Pelley is a fabulous pastry chef (as our finale of sticky toffee pudding with hazelnut-praline-caramel ice cream proved) and I’m amazed she hasn’t been head-hunted by some glamorous Toronto restaurant. The breads, baked at night in the enormous wood-fired oven at the edge of the vineyard while the coyotes pad by and the stars wheel overhead, are the best in the entire peninsula. The recipes belong to Erin Turcke (I treasure my copy of her brilliantly singular book, Sourdough A Recipe For Life) though she left for the Maritimes a week ago and will be replaced next month by a Michelin-starred pastry chef cum baker. Meanwhile, we tasted breads as Erin intended – weighty, tangy, moist of crumb and crisp of crust. A fully fledged Ravine restaurant is planned for 2012; our long table was set outside on a deck behind the deli with a beautiful view of the vineyards.

Guiding us through the wines was none other than Peter Gamble, the renowned winemaker and consultant who designed this winery (and Stratus, and is currently busy with projects in Nova Scotia and Argentina) – Niagara royalty, as ever there was. He had chosen the Ravine 2008 Sauvignon Blanc for our next course, a delectable, coconutty, grapefruity SB that worked brilliantly with a Raspberry Point oyster and a shot glass of orange citrus mignonette and even better with its plate-mate, slices of sweet-salty arctic char cured in ginger, lime and vanilla, garnished with a drizzle of lime-vanilla syrup and a pinch of candied and salted orange and grapefruit zest.

Oyster and arctic char at Ravine Vineyard

Our main course was unbelievably tender veal cheek braised in Ravine’s Redcoat red wine and olive jus and cooked in the mighty wood oven. Before that we tasted a rich, thick chanterelle soup dressed with burnt butter and toasted chanterelles. The chefs paired it with a little puck of brioche topped with a brunoise of caramelized apple and roasted golden beets. The mushrooms came from Marc’s Mushrooms again and I asked chef Collin Goodine what the guy was like. “But he’s right here,” said Goodine. “Do you want to meet him?”

So Marc Eber came out and said hello and showed us all some of his magnificent lobster mushrooms. This is his first year in business and he is working hard, not just harvesting his own secret Ontario ’shroom patches but putting together a network of pickers across Canada. “Mushroom pickers are almost as elusive as mushrooms,” he ruefully explained. When the crop is particularly good, the picker alerts Eber who arranges to fly the baskets of very fresh, high-quality fungi into Toronto. I asked him if he had ever heard of my old friend Goran Amnegard who used to run a similar operation a decade ago, before he went back to Sweden, but Eber had not.

Marc Eber of Marc's mushrooms, forager extraordinaire

Eber fits right in with so many of the passionate young people we have met on this weekend – an impressive new generation who seem determined to carry the idea of Niagara food and wine to the next level. The great news is that they have all the necessary talent to back up and justify that localist enthusiasm.

And now the Tour is over for another year. We had hoped to sail back on Sunday afternoon but the winds were so strong the skippers of our boats refused to leave harbour. On the coach home we thanked Sandy Molnar for organizing our trip. We’re building the Tour of Niagara a web site of its own in a few months time so people can see exactly what they might be in for. Thanks also to David Lawrason – so suave, so relaxed, he’s the Mel Torme of hosts (and I happen to think Mel Torme is a genius) and the very best guide to the latest achievements in Canadian winemaking. He has tasted everything, met everyone, written unabashed exposés of mistakes and cover-ups, earned the respect of anyone I have ever met who takes an interest in wine. What’s lovely for me is that I get to work with him again in October and November when the Gold Medal Plates roadshow starts up again. It gives me the opportunity to taste the work of the finest chefs in eight cities and regions across Canada, from St. John’s to Vancouver – a unique perspective on the state of the art of Canadian cuisine. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Sticky toffee pudding by Ravine's pastry chef, Amy Pelley - the weekend's final treat

 

The tour of Niagara Day Two

07 Sep

Balls Falls, a smaller, quieter Niagara

A windy Saturday morning in Niagara. Definitely sweater weather though the sun was bright and the sky full of innocent-looking blue areas giving the lie to the forecast of showers. We began with my colleague David Lawrason giving us the fascinating low-down on Niagara’s sub-appellations, neatly illustrating the geology with a trip to Balls Falls where Twenty Mile creek trickles over the escarpment in gentle imitation of Niagara itself. Then on to Tawse winery where we learned the importance of gravity-driven winemaking, tasted lovely wines (including the lush, beautifully balanced 2007 Robin’s Block Chardonnay) and discovered a small Szechuan button plant growing in a planter at the door. At least it looked like Szechuan button. Egged on by the eager mob, I guinea-pigged myself and ate one. Yep. The same tingling numbness and sudden salivation. “Now eat one of those,” they cried, pointing at a tree covered in glossy, hard green berries. Basta… I had no wish to take the edge off my appetite.

             We ate lunch at the Good Earth Food and Wine Co., Nicolette Novak’s whimsical shangri-la of a cottage, garden, orchard, cooking school and now vineyard and winery all hidden away in her 55-acre peach farm. The team there is picked for individual enthusiasm and charming eccentricity as well as talent, taking their lead from Nicolette, the “facilitator of fun.” It was a really good meal, starting with those gnocchi in the picture – ethereally light, made from local Upper Canada ricotta cheese, egg, a little flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and bathed in a cream sauce topped with smoked roma tomatoes. Nicolette’s rosé wine (“the panty-remover” she calls it) was a vibrant, strawberry-scented match.

The Good Earth's insubstantial gnocchi with applewood-smoked tomato

            Resident chef Patrick Engel was so eloquent about the dishes we were given that I had nothing left to say and tucked in with everyone else, particularly enjoying the meaty, dry-rubbed pork side ribs that had spent hours in the smoker in the garden, and a fine pork tenderloin that Engel had marinated overnight in buttermilk, dredged in cornflour and briefly fried – the Angelina Jolie of all schnitzels. No one knows more about peaches than Nicolette, obviously, so I was interested to see how she would use them in our dessert. First she made peach ice cream streaked with caramel, then she halved and pitted whole peaches from her trees, dipped them first in melted butter then in brown sugar, pan fried them for a moment until the sugar crust was caramelized then slipped the pan into the oven for about 15 minutes. Oh my. Simply a peach juice explosion with every bite.

            We spent the rest of the afternoon at Malivoire and Flat Rock Cellars, tasting old vintages of their finest offerings then went back to the hotel to change for dinner.

            Frank Dodd has been chef at Hillebrand Estates winery since 2006 and I love what he does there, hence my decision to bring the group back there after a brilliant dinner in the barrel cellar on the 2008 tour. He didn’t let us down. We’d have needed blankets and hot water bottles to dine in the cellar this time around but it was the ideal place for a pre-prandial vertical mini-tasting of Trius red 2007, 2002 and 1998. Dodd had provided some nibbles and I’m ashamed to say they very nearly proved terminally distracting from the serious wine-tasting business, sitting there calling out to me in their tiny canapé voices. Superlight, creamy whipped foie gras mousse in a biscuitty cone, topped with a slice of cherry that had been macerated in Cabernet Franc icewine… a fat brick of marinated smoked salmon with a curl of cucumber… bison carpaccio wrapped around a juicy little pickled cattail… Heavenly.

            We sat down to dinner upstairs in the pavilion beside the vineyards, starting with a terrine of pressed watermelon and tomato, a shot of tomato water with a watermelon popsicle and Koskamp Farms burratta. The dairy prepares these cheeses like a regular mozzarella but during the process they pull each form open, fill it with pure cream then close it up again, returning it to the warm whey to seal the deal. You have to eat it within a day or two and these ones were very fresh, dressed by chef with salt and pepper, virgin cold-pressed soya bean oil and baco noir balsamic syrup. We helped ourselves with a large spoon, scooping up the soft white cheese and the cream that flooded out from its heart as we cut down.

            The next course was the highlight of the evening – a study in the naturally raised Berkshire pork from Dingo Farm, near Bradford. Dodd made a sturdy terrine from the pig’s head, studded with smoked potato. He fashioned crunchy little blood-sausage croquettes of peppery richness and great depth of flavour which was a lovely match for a 1997 Trius red, the Bordeaux blend that made Hillebrand’s reputation in the 1990s. He prepared a consommé from the ham hocks and added little shreds of pulled pork, tiny white beans and flecks of poached tomato. Each of us had a small ceramic pot of this amazing soup, piping hot beneath its pastry cap.

            If you’ve ever tasted those little perch the Purdey family catch in Lake Erie you’ll know the flesh is unusually firm and dense, tasting like fresh, sweet shrimp. We each got a whole perch for our main course, butterflied along the spine and set over a melange of ingredients tailor-made to flatter the accompanying wines (two Showcase single barrel Chardonnays from 2004 and 2006). Gorgeous little wild spot prawns from Queen Charlotte Sound almost stole the show from kernels of local corn, sweet peas, baby yellow Ontario chanterelles and a buttery cauliflower purée.

            Dessert was peaches poached slowly in icewine in a thermal circulator that preserved their texture beautifully. The peach juice and icewine formed a predictably sumptuous nectar of a sauce, further chilled by a compressed white peach sorbet.

            Beyond that waited coffee and tea, though most of us felt we had no room left. Some of our younger element discussed a possible visit to the Niagara casino but then thought better of it. A small contingent repaired to the bar when we got back to the hotel to close off the evening with a cold beer while discussing the treats that Sunday might bring. More on that tomorrow.

 

Niagara Tour part one

06 Sep

Szechuan buttons discovered growing at Tawse winery. Boldly we tasted!

Halfway across Lake Ontario in a 40-foot Hunter sailboat, we were having a most invigorating morning. The wind was strong and from the west and with our sails reefed we were speeding along at a rate of knots, the boat tilting dramatically so that I, high on the starboard side of the cockpit, could look down between  my feet at the faces of my companions on the port. The urge to shout “Woohoo!” was almost irresistible. We were two hours out from Port Credit, still two hours from Port Dalhousie on the Niagara side when the squall smacked into us. Fortunately, our skipper, Mike, had seen it coming and taken in sail. One of our other boats was less fortunate and its sail was torn asunder. Lake Ontario – 330 feet deep at that point – had never felt more like an inland sea as we motored on through the warm but rough water (three-metre waves according to the CBC), soaked by rain, holding tight to whatever seemed steadfast. It was altogether excellent. But that squall blew away the summer in a single violent gust. The temperature had dropped ten degrees by the following morning and those with a nose for such things looked up at the grey and white clouds scudding across the blue and sniffed the first intimation of autumn.

            But what an amazing summer it has been! Too hot for strawberries and cherries – too hot for the pickerel and perch in the Great Lakes who have stayed in the cool depths, to the dismay of our commercial fishermen – too hot for the buffalo herd at Koskamp Farm so that the awesome cream-filled burratta cheese we tasted on Saturday night at Hillebrand was made not with their milk but with that of their less sensitive understudies, the Koskamp Farm cows. That said, everyone else on the peninsula seems to have a smile on their face. The grapes are ripening several weeks ahead of schedule – picking of Chardonnay Musqué has already begun – and it’s going to be a spectacular vintage as long as it doesn’t rain too much in September. The peaches are better than I can ever remember and still have a week left in their season. This year, the tomatoes – especially the 300 or so different heritage varieties that grow at Linda Crago’s Tree & Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in Wellandport, some of which we tasted at various restaurants throughout the weekend – are historic in every sense of the word.

            They began our weekend – almost – as the first course served at our winemaker’s dinner at Treadwell in Port Dalhousie. We actually started with flutes of 13th Street’s 2006 Cuvee 13 Rose, sipped outside on the terrace looking out at the swift green eddies of the old Welland canal that passes right by the restaurant – the sun had come out and it was warm in a windy kind of way – but I’m not going to describe every last thing that passed our lips on this long weekend (45 wines, five amazing meals, various sundry breakfasts, snacks, leaves and foraged treats). The tomatoes, however, were exemplary. There were half a dozen different varieties, some red, others yellow, orange, green and purple, some like tiny pears, others thinly or thickly sliced, each one offering its own interpretation of summer’s balance of tangy acids and sweetness. Our host and chef Stephen Treadwell had paired them up with a little tomato sorbet, some crumbled feta (mild, sweet and creamy) from Best Baa Dairy out near Dundas and a crispy deep-fried basil leaf from a farm we visited on Sunday – Victory Organic Greens (of which more later). As one of our group wisely pointed out, the tomatoes were perfectly salted – evenly, invisibly, as opposed to having someone fling a handful of fleur de sel at the plate – which enhanced their spectrum of flavours immeasurably. The wine poured with this bouquet of tomatoes was the stunningly delicious Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard 2008 Fume Blanc, introduced to our party by none other than Hidden Bench’s affable proprietor, Harald Thiel. I had intended to be very scientific and try to work out which tomato worked best with the wine but it was all so yummy and we were all so hungry after our sail that our plates were empty far too soon for any forensic work.

            Next up was a dish built around some of those elusive Lake Erie pickerel – perfect little fillets, their juices just seized in the pan. Treadwell orchestrated them with some Saskatchewan chanterelles acquired through the area’s new mushroom source, Marc’s Mushrooms (of which more later). They were some of the best chanterelles I have ever eaten – so fresh they were almost crunchy, squeaky as silk and tasting of sweet, creamy woodland flavours. Tossed in amongst them were little crispy pieces of Mario Pingue’s guanciale, a stem of smooth-stemmed, thick-leaved New Zealand spinach grown nearby by Dave Irish, some impeccable fingerling potatoes and a subtle sauce salted with soy and some shaved summer truffle. Treadwell showed me the truffle in question. It was the size of a man’s fist and though it had only a fraction of the potency of a winter truffle it was ideal for this dish. “Where did you get it?” I asked. “Er…” Treadwell, always so generous and precise about the provenance of his ingredients, hesitated a moment. “From a guy…” Okay, Stephen, we won’t be pushy. Everyone tends to guard their truffle sources. The wine match, Flat Rock’s 2007 Chardonnay Reserve, introduced by Flat Rock’s owner, Ed Madronich, was the best wine match of the entire weekend.

            A little palate cleanser was in order before the next course (veal Wellington matched with Southbrook’s rich, elegant, supersmooth 2007 Whimsy Cabernet Franc) but Treadwell took it to a new level with a zapper rather than a cleanser. Each one of us was presented with a single Szechuan button, a slightly conical seed ball of the Brazilian plant Acmella oleracea, about the size of a fingernail. I’ve mentioned these things before in a posting about the national cocktail championship but if you missed it let me explain that this plant contains a strong analgesic called splianthol which numbs and tingles in the mouth like the cold-hot sensation you get from Szechuan peppercorns – something like licking a 9-volt battery. Bravely our group bit and chewed the buttons! It was a nice little coup on the chef’s part though I wondered how it would affect our appreciation of the Cabernet. So did its creator, winemaker Anne Sperling, sitting at the far end of our table. In the end, time solved all – a ten-minute gap, some water and bread, soothing the effect.

            After that, it was plain sailing through the marvellous Wellington followed by a roasted peach topped with Mennonite granola, sheep’s milk sorbet and rosemary caramel sauce and finally lingering, satisfied conversation and a teeny taste of Anne Sperling’s awesome Riesling from her family property in the Okanagan

            All in all, an excellent start to the weekend. What happened next must wait until tomorrow’s posting.